The times we live in are like no other in history. We have the internet, which allows us to connect with people all over the world. We have jets that can take us anywhere with a dull routine involving a few hours out of our lives. Life expectancy constantly climbs as we learn more and more about the most stunning details of our once fragile flesh. Our world is like no other before it.
One of the things that constantly amazes me is the most basic assumption of our culture; this is a time like never before. Certainly, we have technologies that are dazzling and give us great confidence that any problem can be solved by a few creative minds and a concerted effort. Many things have changed, certainly, but has this changed the people who make it all possible?
It’s rare to find writers who are have been trained in the great classics of literature and the craft of storytelling. I recently had a chance to read The Poetics and Rhetoric by Aristotle, works written 2300 years ago. They’re remarkably readable and relevant to understanding the basics of what works when telling a story. When I tell people that I’ve been reading them, however, a blank look comes in reply. There’s nothing to say about them. Ancient texts hardly ever register as having any meaning at all.
A lot of this is a by-product of the Twentieth Century, the age of modernism and the time when our technology delivered most of the things we value in our lives today. Such different times called for different social structures, and along with them came a different view of what humans were all about. Life was organized into social structures which were, in turn, professionalized. Requiring certified teachers became Independent School Districts which required certain support structures to be headed by professional administrators. Some local governments adopted the “Manager” system, also headed by professionals. Throughout our society, management has become a key issue.
There’s a kind of mechanical precision that is presumed in all of this that is assumed to be more efficient. That hasn’t been questioned in a very long time, either. As systems start to fail or change around us, however, it’s worth asking a very simple question: what if all of these systems are staffed by people who are not particularly different than people who came before us? Certainly, the high degree of professionalism might make things a little different, but can these systems stand the same jealousy, corruption, and other human failings that brought about problems in the past?
Since we study so little of the classics, the feeling that we are somehow a new and different people living in new times is rarely challenged. It’s as if time started less than a hundred years ago for many of us. Yet a quick read of ancient texts such as the Tao Te Ching, now about 2500 years old, shows that we really are the same kind of standing upright chimp that existed long before we had so many kewl things and great structure in our lives.
That may sound obvious to many people, and I frankly hope it does. But the implication is that in our social order, new and largely untested, we have the same people who are prone to the same mistakes made by older structures. Lacking any evidence that we can, in fact, survive a serious test, logic suggests that we should be willing to accept that anything is still possible – for good or bad.
The solution, of course, is to read the ancient texts and understand how much was known about humans long ago. There’s no need to completely re-invent the wheel, although presenting a wheel to people who are unaware of it can be a hot ticket. What’s critical is the realization that technologies like the internet aren’t that different than the printing press in a way, and are likely to revolutionize the way people think and act precisely to the extent that it brings them new ways of looking at their world.
Learning how to master our technology is not much different than learning how to tell a story, and for good reason. What’s more interesting is that this skill was mastered a very long time ago, and can be understood by anyone who wants to. You just have to assume that maybe, just maybe, we’re not all that different than the people who came before us and that the structure and technology is our servant, not our master. It turns out that’s a big assumption to many people.
Very good original essay and thinking. I thought about the good life and Helen and Scott Nearing. So I reread some of their writings. You can get it on the internet you know. Keep writing and reading!
This post is right up my alley, and I think you make some excellent points about human nature here.
Are people essentially the same as they ever were? Is life made of the same stuff; is there “nothing new under the sun”? How could that be possible, given life’s continuities?
I think the biggest difference that communications technologies have brought us is the way more people than ever before are debating these things in full view. Because of this, it’s easy to feel that the human race is smarter – or at least more tuned in – than it ever was in the past.
But I’m with you – I believe human nature is fairly static. There will always be those that are courageous vs. fearful, leaders vs. followers, selfish vs. altruistic, etc. There are too many variables of personality inherent in us to be able to generalise a society, let alone the whole human species.
Great comments Lauri!, I just wrote on Minnpost’s Brauerblog on how early press workers faced some of the same problems that newspaper workers are facing now. Braudel writes “If the privilege conferred by capital, well established in practice (as anyone knows who has read the documents of the past through the eyes of the present) took so long to become visible and on the whole this only happened with the industrial revolution (massive improvements in communication, luxury, specialization) it was not merely because the revolters were more educated…Attacks had been made on the mythology defending the nobility, attacks had been made on the myth/realism of a society of orders…soon to be the dispenser of civilization and well being to the colonized peoples; here too was born the myth of the economic advantages of laissez-faire. Even in our own time, these myths are alive and well, although contradicted by the facts every day.
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